Time To Clinch – Minnesota Vikings Vs. Atlanta Falcons Preview

Today’s game is the best chance the Vikings have among the two remaining games of the season of controlling their own destiny. Though the Falcons boast the second best runner (second only to Adrian Peterson, of course) in the league, the Vikings match up better against Atlanta than they do against the last team on their regular season schedule, the New York Giants.

After an abysmal year with Michael Vick‘s legal troubles and the coach abandoning his team, this year’s Falcons squad is a great story. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has been stellar and running back Michael Turner has been the steal of free agency.

Still, like the Cardinals, Atlanta seems to be a better team on paper than they are in person. Yes, they have a winning record (9-5) but like Arizona, their victories have mostly come at the expense of soft teams. They’ve split their series with division rivals and only barely pulled out a win last week at home against a fading Tampa Bay team minus starting quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Division games are unique in that division opponents are much more familiar with one another since they play each other twice a season, every season.

Take away their division victories and the only team Atlanta has beat with a winning record has been Chicago, and that game they won by only two points. Outside of their division, they lost to the two teams they’ve played with winning records, Philadelphia and Denver. Atlanta’s losses within their division all occurred on the road.

The Vikings are coming off their first victory in which they really played together as a team for the first time this season. They made few mistakes. Even on the drive that began with two false starts, which earlier in the year would have derailed a drive, they overcame the penalties by capping the drive with a score.

Minnesota Vikings v Arizona Cardinals

Cedric Griffin had his best day as a Viking and has steadily improved over the course of the season. Matched up against Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald with league MVP candidate Curt Warner throwing them the ball, Griffin more than held his own. He jammed receivers off the line, stayed with them in coverage, and made an amazing one-handed interception (and he probably should have had two more). Griffin doesn’t give receivers nearly as much cushion and when he goes for the tackle now he’s not only quick but also under control. Remember how he used to fly off receivers because he came in too fast to wrap them up? No longer.

While Griffin can credit Jared Allen and the pressure the defensive line brings to bear on opposing quarterbacks, there’s no question his game has improved immensely.

Despite Arizona’s blocked kick return for a touchdown, special teams were uncharacteristically solid during recent weeks. I can only imagine that Childress heeded the screams of Bud Grant telling him to use more veterans on the unit.

It’s true that Tarvaris Jackson has looked a lot better during the game and a half since subbing for the injured Gus Frerotte, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I know the clamor among fans and media alike has been to start Jackson for the rest of the season but let’s be real. He rallied us to a win against…the Lions. And his primary job last week was to hand off to Adrian Peterson. It was Frerotte, after all, who got us to this point.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to be happy about Jackson’s recent play and hopeful about his future. He did not looked panicked under center, which is probably the most important improvement in his play. He made good reads for the most part and threw some very tough passes–the touchdown’s to Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade in particular.

A primary complaint I’ve had of Jackson during his entire tenure as a Viking has been his abysmal inaccuracy on the long ball. The commentators and post-game analysts proclaimed Jackson’s TD pass to Bernard Berrian “perfect” but it wasn’t; it was under thrown and Berrian had to pull up to haul it in. It was a great catch by Berrian. But at least it was catchable and I’ll take that over his typical unreachable overthrow.

But as we’re looking to clinch a playoff berth, shouldn’t we be dancing with the one who brung us? That’s why I’m a little surprised Childress has opted for inexperience over the unflappable veteran leadership of Frerotte.

The Vikings’ game plan against the Falcons should be pretty much the same plan they used against the Cardinals. Run the ball a lot on offense, control the clock to keep the ball out of the hands of Ryan and Turner, and to put Jackson in high-percentage passing situations.

Minnesota Vikings v Arizona Cardinals

A heavy dose of Peterson and Chester Taylor will help to neutralize pass rusher extraordinaire John Abraham. The Falcons will play Abraham on either side to take advantage of mismatches, so the Vikes can’t put Ryan Cook out on an island against him or we may see Jackson become panicky again.

On defense, the Vikings will need to do what they’ve done all season: Shut down the run and harass the quarterback. This will be much easier said than done. The Falcons have not only dynamic running back Michael Turner in their backfield but also Jerious Norwood, who, though he doesn’t get much action, is no slouch. You can’t have the second leading rusher in the league without having a great offensive line, regardless of the softness of your schedule. This line has given up precious few sacks, as well. And we’ll be facing Turner and Ryan minus Pat Williams. Today we get to see what kind of depth we’ve got at defensive tackle.

But that’s what we need to do to win. Shut ’em down and make Matt Ryan beat us. The Falcons haven’t fared too well when Ryan throws 30 to 40 passes. While he’s clearly talented, he’s still a rookie and he’s never played in a venue as loud as the Dome. We’ll need to get in his face and make him uncomfortable, if not sack him.

Our corners will need to bump the receivers off the line to delay their routes, especially Roddy White, who has finally decided to turn into the elite receiver many expected him to become.

While Darren Sharper ma y have plenty of fond memories of Eli Manning interceptions, the New York Giants are a very good team and the Falcons may not be. This is our best chance for victory of the two games that remain.